Mince Pie Making @JOCookerySchool

It is a fact that my brother William makes the fairest mince pies in the land. Which is surprising as he has exceptionally warm hands- long associated with terrible pastry chefs. Every year it’s a battle to get a batch out of him, and once we’ve eaten them all, a second batch is demanded. It shouldn’t be so difficult to get one’s hands on a mince pie.

As the recipe is kept extremely close to his chest, the solution Muv and I decided, was to attend a mince pie masterclass at Jamie Oliver’s Cookery School then shower the family with millions of pies.

The cookery school is based at London’s Westfield White City shopping centre and is presumably relatively new as everything was gleaming. As we arrived we were presented with a darling apron and talked through the pie concept by our dear cookery teacher/ chef. In conclusion the mincemeat filling can be whatever you want it to be! In this case bulked out with large chunks of sweet, roasted butternut squash.

The process was explained in steps before we were sent off to our cooking station to have a go ourselves. Unfortunately for us, our station was on a kind of galley with several ovens heating at full blast- having been out the night before, the extreme heat didn’t make me feel particularly invigorated.

We were encouraged to cut out pastry stars and the like to stick on top of our pies, but greedy buggers we are, Muv and I decided that a much better use of the pastry was simply to make as many pies as we could. I’m calling our design the sunflower, but call it what you will.

While the pies were steaming in the oven we were given a demonstration of how to make our own mincemeat (the stuff we used had been made up in advance by the team as it takes hours to bubble away), taking it in turns to sniff the delightful smelling fruits and spices. And then, rather unexpected, our dear teacher had to dash off to teach her next class- boy, has Jamie got them working hard! We were left hanging around for a good 10 minutes, until the sous chef came to check on our pies. My advice would have been to release us all out of that roasting hot kitchen, maybe got everyone a drink, and requested that we return in 10 or 15 minutes. I don’t think this is usual procedure thought, as the other class, a hen party perhaps, had tables to sit at and were sipping champagne in a much cooler environment.


Finally our dear little pies were ready. Rather than burn the roofs of our mouths we settled on having the pies boxed up to take away with us, we were even permitted to take a little clingfilmed parcel of our left-over dough which was kind.


We made it as far as Liverpool Street Station before we gave in to temptation and bit into our still-warm pies. Delicious, Christmassy mincemeat, encased in what reminded me of the pastry we used as a kind of modelling clay at Granny’s when we were little- you’d slip the odd bit into your mouth when her back was turned and be extremely disappointed that it tasted of flour, rather that sugar and butter as you’d hoped. It was at that moment I realised that I was never going to be the favourite child. Jamie’s books may line my bookshelves, but sadly his (my) mince pies are no competition for my brother’s. 

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Hallowe’en Afternoon Tea @Lancasterlondon

It’s become an annual tradition that Petula and I celebrate Halloween in the most unauthodox manner we can think of. Previously we have visited a horror farm, and on another occasion we made a haunted house from pieces of toast.

This year, we killed two birds with one wonderful stone and celebrated Halloween over tea. 


Although one has taken tea at The Lancaster previously, and with so many teas to be taken in town it almost seems wasteful to duplicate, however the theme was so vastly different that it was a whole new experience for me.

As we made our way into the tea lounge we were faced by our bloodied and ashen faced server, as silly, young girls do we got the giggles and soon our zombie friend dropped his guard. We were seated at our table and presented with the rather gruesome sounding menu. A cucumber coffin you say?


It is always a joy when Petula and I are permitted to drink our way through the tea menu- a hotel’s speciali-tea (haha!) is usually my first port of call, however on this occasion I’d asked my friend’s permission to have an English Breakfast tea. “Now what is wrong with a cup of EB?” You might ask. “Nothing” I reply, “please feel free to drink EB to your heart’s content.” However, if you are on a voyage of tea discover you won’t get very far from home on English Breakfast. It’s the vanilla of tea, the spaghetti bolognese, the fudge in a box of Miniature Heroes- you can do so much better, my dear. My excuse, if you will hear me out, was that on that particular morning I had taken only one cup of tea using rather old milk, it hadn’t quite turned, but the tea tasted thin and metallic which hung around my throat like a bad memory. Best to get straight back on the horse I thought, remembering the time my brother did fall off a horse, bashed his nose, and was forced to jump straight back on by his girlfriend, despite the blood streaming down his face. In other words, I desperately needed some tea. 

“I’ll have a pot of English Breakfast please.”

A request which was greeted with a look of disgust (I can understand, I was disgusted with myself) from our server who proceeded to lecture me on why I shouldn’t have an EB, and that maybe I might like a chai, as though it were some sort of alien concept to me. I can see where he was coming from, chai is rather lovely after all, but I was rather offended that my choice of EB suggested I was boring. It was so condescending that I had to bite my tongue rather hard! This was my only criticism though, as everybody else was more than accommodating. 


Well the savouries were rather scrummy, the beef being a favourite, the scones small but perfectly formed (cream in a tube in-keeping with the art theme, but no substitute for clotted cream and rather a meagre amount) and the patisserie was very impressive- the dead man’s finger eclair, as I’m going to call it, a clear winner. Unusually the food was not served on tiered plates in the middle of the table, but on a side-table in a boxed filled with dry ice- a theatrical masterpiece! 


Somehow we managed to drag our sitting out for 3 1/2 hours! Sometimes one feels like one is being hurried along, or ignored once a length of time has passed, but not so here- the atmosphere was so comfortable that it seemed a shame to leave. Satisfied that the experience was well worth £35, I’m sure we’ll be back. 

Stir Up @landmarklondon


Christmas pudding is a big deal in the Beetroot household, and not solely reserved for the month of December. One is as likely to have pudding and custard on the 25th December as on 9th March or 28th September.

In previous years Muv and I have got together on Stir Up Sunday to begin our marvellous Christmas cake, making sure everyone has a turn with the wooden spoon for good luck.

This year I saw an advertisement in Good Food magazine for a Christmas pudding masterclass including champagne on arrival and a two-course lunch at none other than The Landmark Hotel- one of my favourite places in London.

A few weeks later, we emerged from Marylebone station to find the splendour of old railway hotel in front of us. Once armed with a flute of champagne, an apron and a chef’s hat, we were seated at a high table with a mixing bowl sunk into the centre and surrounded by many, many ingredients. 

Chefs Gary and Oli arrived, talking us though the history of the Christmas pudding, pudding traditions and the world’s most expensive pudding (£23,500 and created by ex-Savoy chef Martin Chiffers, if you’re interested). Then it was time to get our hands dirty; chucking in the ingredients as directed by chef, giving it a good old stir and getting drunk on the scent of the alcohol infused fruit.

 Once everything was mixed and given the nod of approval by chef, we divided the mixture between three pudding basins- pressing it down firmly- covered in baking paper, tin foil over the top and tied with string to hold it all together. We were instructed to steam the puddings within the next 24 hours and then keep them in a cool, dark place until they were ready for their second steaming on Christmas Day (if we could wait that long!) 

Next came a delightful surprise- a barman from the Mirror Bar arrived with arms full of of cocktail shakers and magically, a host of other ingredients appeared on our tables.
  
After some pouring, vigorous shaking and a bit more pouring we each had a glass of eggnog. It’s not something we’d tried before, it’s never really appealed in all honesty, but we both really enjoyed it. Thankfully a recipe card was tucked into our gift bag so we’re certain to recreate this festive cocktail in the near future.

 By this point, and feeling rather sozzled, we were more than ready for lunch. Smoked salmon followed by slow-cooked beef- absolutely delicious. 

 Post luncheon we were presented with gift bags containing our three puddings, all beautifully presented in celophane and ribbon, a Landmark embroidered apron, a pudding competency certificate and copies of all the recipes. I think there might have even been a Landmark pen.

Muv either had a wonderful time or still considers herself incompetent, as has asked to book us places next year! Perhaps Gary could run a stollen masterclass instead to broaden our Christmas baking skills.

Afternoon Tea @Langham_London


The Langham has been on my ‘to do’ list for rather a long time. It was a happy coincidence that my dear, dear friend Petula was looking for a venue for her birthday tea and up popped an email in our inboxes.

“Did you get an email about-”

“Afternoon tea at The Langham?”

“And the private room?”

“Yes! How exciting!”

And so it was booked.

When booking for 10 guests or more, one is able to request a private dining room. One half expected to be shut away in a windowless room, but as it turned out we were seated in a beautiful, bright room with a large dining table and the full attention of two servers.


 I have come to expect a stuffy, sometimes snobbish atmosphere with my afternoon tea; a sense of respecting the ritual, rather than an elitist club. I believe there is a proper way to behave on these occasions and I do have a problem with those who choose to wear jeans to tea- how truly awful!

The Langham was somehow different to what I was expecting. The sense of propriety was certainly there- our servers laid napkins across our laps, tea was poured for us (very important in my ‘afternoon tea’ books!) yet they both had the most sparkling personalities I have ever encountered in the hotel world. We felt so well looked after, so amused, and it was all very genuine.

A lovely moment was when one of the guests- an afternoon tea virgin-  thought she spied slices of chocolate cake from across the room. ‘No, no’ we said, ‘they’re sandwiches!’ Of course, we were referring to the dark, rye bread. ‘Oh, chocolate sandwiches!’ She exclaimed. Even Bhau, our server, was laughing at her mistake and a few minutes later he emerged from the kitchen with a tray of Nutella sandwiches! How delightful!


The sandwiches, or savouries as I should probably call them were a play on the traditional- egg and artichoke for example. Some worked- the eclair was absolutely divine… Some less so, beef and ‘slaw for example was a bit too obscure for my taste, but I commend them on their adventurousness.


  
Unusually, we were served a lemon posset palette-cleanser. I’m not a lemon fan at all, but it was actually rather lovely and certainly did the job.

Darling Bhau soon discovered that it was Petula’s birthday celebration and arrived with a ‘special’ tray of the most wonderful salted-caramel tartlets and was insistent that she was served her scone in the same way as Her Majesty, the Queen on her birthday. It was a sweet, if rather hilarious moment when he cut her scone with a knife and fork, then spread it with jam and clotted cream (in the wrong order I hasten to add!) Thankfully he stopped short of feeding her, or I might have burst with laughter!


 You might call me a little mean but having sipped hundreds of cups of breakfast and afternoon blends, I’m after something a little different and am keen to test my server’s tea knowledge. Unfortunately I don’t remember the other gentleman’s name, but he did a fine job of meeting my exacting requirements and took the time to explain what made this tea special.



The cakes and pastries were pleasant- one never manages to test them all for fear of feeling rather sick by the end and kindly, we were given sweet little boxes to take them away in. I particularly adored the shortbread teapot.

I had seen that the cocktail bar in The Langham had recently received an award of excellence, but it being a Saturday night and all, there was rather a wait to get in. Perhaps one might venture in next time.

All in all, a highly recommended experience for food and frivolity.

Afternoon Tea @BelgravesLondon

 I was going to start by saying “America doesn’t do tea property” but then I realised I am actually writing about an American hotel so I will retract that statement.

We had just spent the last 10 days in an extremely Americanised Mexican hotel. Jet lag had us ordering pots of tea and sweet pastries at “six thirdy” AM, or half past six as we say. Rumours were flying round that the previous week the hotel had run out of English Breakfast tea bags- needless to say, things were rather tense. No, I did not want a “cawfee” instead.

As a safety measure and a treat (who doesn’t need a treat the moment they get back from vacation- oh crumbs! They’ve got me at it now! Holiday) I booked us afternoon tea in Pont Street Restaurant at the Belgraves Hotel. 

After a very welcoming arrival we were seated in a very sweet alcove surrounded by windows. Glasses of champagne arrives with our choice of rose or raspberry pearls in the bottom.  
 And unfortunately that was the best of the service, because we seemed to be rather neglected after that. Some minutes later we were asked something along the lines of “Well what tea are you having?” despite not yet having received the tea menu. One of our servers cheerfully explained that she had been rather late for work- we were unsure how to respond to this. Later on when my green tea had become too strong, I attempted to request some fresh hot water, but in a near empty restaurant staff were buzzing around, paying us no attention. I’m not the type to shout “Garçon!”, but it was impossible to make eye contact with anyone. Eventually my request was fulfilled, no questions asked.
Enough about the service, because the food made up for it. 

 Other than the unusual option of grated cheese and pickle, which seemed rather rustic along side the traditional fillings, the sandwiches with good- moist, fresh and thick. But the pièce de résistance had to be the Marie Antoinette themed cake stand.

  
 I cannot give enough praise to the pastry chefs for the sheer variety on the stack. One usually finds that after the sandwiches one is faced with an overwhelming pile of sweet cakes, but here there was a perfect balance of sweet and savoury- the foie gras and the hollandaise quail’s egg were favourites. Our server was happy to give us a little box to take away, so my playing card biscuit was saved for later and was an absolute delight.
I did find the price quite shocking, not because I didn’t value the effort with the food, but because I don’t think Pont Street yet has the reputation to charge at this rate. I hope the service was a one-off because I would be inclined to visit again in the future.

And yes, Americans can do tea properly.

Chocolate Afternoon Tea: @landmarklondon

On our leisurely stroll over from Marble Arch we discussed how, despite a luxurious interior, many of our favourite hotels have a rather shabby, uninteresting interior. I believe a lot of it is of a period style, but frankly, I just don’t like it.

What a pleasant surprise when we turned the corner to see the magnificent exterior of The Landmark Hotel, all archways and red brick. I confess our Teasearch had mainly consisted of admiring the beautiful glass-roofed Winter Garden and planning which blend of tea we would have, so discovering this rather attractive structure was a delight.

Once inside the marble lobby the consierge arranged for our special tour of the hotel, taking in the glorious stained- glass windows marked ‘Leeds’, ‘Sheffield’ and (inexplicably) ‘Barnsley’. We strolled around the great function rooms with their wooden panelling and numerous chandeliers and carved fireplaces.

Our tour guide gave us a brief history of the hotel, informing us of its grand beginnings as the Great Central Hotel, a Victorian-era railway hotel intended to serve Marylebone station.

Sadly, as with many of the railway hotels, the advent of the motorcar brought it into decline and it wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s, when the demand for luxury hotels grew, that the site was redeveloped and became The Landmark.   

Once seated in the Winter Garden the afternoon tea itself was wonderful- we both opted for the chocolate afternoon tea by way of celebrating the fact that lent has passed and all things cocoa are now back in my diet.

Disappointingly, the traditional finger sandwiches, scones, cakes and pastries were not served on the tiered stand, but individual plates. However this was my only minor criticism and this was made up for by the beautiful free-standing teapot towers.

I keep meaning to make a list of what (in my opinion) makes the perfect afternoon tea, and the Landmark has certainly caused me to come to some conclusion on this.

For me, the detail which marks a hotel above all others is my belief that one should not have to pour one’s own tea. It is not often that one is treated to this level of service, the only other example of this I have experienced was at the Savoy Hotel.

Secondly I believe that if one is paying in the region of £40 for afternoon tea (“£50 for a sandwich”, as Farv often exclaims) that one should leave suitably full-up, having endulged in as much as they feel able to. I can comfortably eat eight finger sandwiches, so presenting me with only four is rather tight-fisted. Thankfully, our server was more than happy to replenish, even allowing us to sample the rather lovely vegetarian fillings.

Thirdly, one should be able to change their variety of tea. Often a server will lead one to believe that one may change blends midway thought, but never gives one the opportunity to. My companion mentioned that the Berkely are very forthcoming with offering a new pot- I’m yet to have the pleasure.  Again, we were fortunate that we were encouraged to try a few different blends; our teapot stand was laden with at least 6 pots. I started with the Winter Garden blend, followed by a caramel black tea and finishing on a white peony.

The chocolate element of the chocolate afternoon tea included chocolate chip scones and various chocolate cakes and pastries. Being super critical we thought that it would have been possible to incorporate it into the bread maybe, and we also thought it would have been a more defined use of dark, milk and whites chocolates. My favourite was the chocolate and coconut macaroon.

All in all, it’s was a great experience. It may not be a name you have ever heard of, but for me this makes it an even greater find (and no ridiculous waiting list!) I would highly recommend it.

Worst First Date: The Alchemist

I often hear urban myths about men organising surprise proposals, or leading their girls on clue-laden missions to discover amazing presents. Hell! I’ve even know of a dad who buys thoughtful presents. But I’m having none of it; I’ve never known a man who can take a girl on a half-decent date. Although a piss up in a brewery is probably within their abilities. I think they save all of their planning skills up for stag weekends.

This has driven me to take command, to actively seek out dream date venues. It’s ironic because the least attractive man to me is one who is weak-willed, unopinionated and frankly, a bit wet.

Some months ago (I stress that this was some time ago, and very much not my current beau) I found The Alchemist on a ‘just opened’ website, and keen to go I found a man to take me. 

And by ‘take me’, I mean he was supposed to meet me at Liverpool St Station, but elected to just go to the bar, get himself a drink and send me a pin of his location on Whatsapp. What a joker! 

Things didn’t get much better when he told me he didn’t date fat girls and that I wasn’t far off this category; that he’d been thinking about asking me out for a while and hadn’t “found anyone better so…”; that this couldn’t be a relationship unless I changed this, this, this, blah blah blah. He told me about his many recent holidays; Kenyan Safari (“you wouldn’t like Africa”), Marbella (“you wouldn’t like Marbs”), San Francisco (“I can’t imagine you in San Fran”). There was no explanation offered either- perhaps I look like I prefer staying at home! 

I left the bar in a rage. At least he paid I suppose.

And yes, I did see him again! Madness!

Anyway, I thought I’d give The Alchemist another chance. A mate date this time.

The cock menu itself is a sight to behold: a folded parchment, illustrated with medieval, scientific diagrams and detailing a whole series of potable potions.

We opted for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party- a sharing cocktail served in teacups (what else!) The mixologist, if that’s the term they choose to adopt, gathered various shaped beakers, an open flame burner, liquids (presumable alchoholic), fruits and herbs. Had we been wearing plastic goggles it might have been a chemistry lesson from the jolly old days of grammar school.   

  

She kindly explained that heating the bottom chamber evaporated the liquid into the top chamber where it inflused with the fruit. The burner is then removed and gravity (I imagine, or maybe a vacuum?) drained/sucked the liquid back into the bottom chamber sans fruit.

Next she dropped dry ice pellets into clean beakers and poured the fruit-infused liquid on top of it which caused a cloud of dry ice to irrupt from the beaker like a tiny volcano. I think this is called sublimation (who’d have thought one would be spouting out these terms over a decade after those dreaded Chem lessons!)   

 

After the dry ice subsided we were left with a beaker full of the most divine cocktail, which we decanted into our willow-patterned teacups. However I couldn’t tell you what was in it!

An absolutely darling bar with an exciting cock list- just pick your date wisely!